“You see, but you do not observe” the great consulting detective Sherlock Holmes often chided his friend Dr. Watson.
Holmes and Watson would see exactly the same things, but only Holmes would notice them.
Most of us are like Dr. Watson — we see the things around us, we notice whatever immediately stands out, but for the most part we’re not really paying much attention to the background.
There is a difference between seeing and observing. My father observed more than most.
Countless times we would be fishing, 10 feet apart in the same boat, each with the same view. He’d see schools of baitfish, deer on the shore, hawks perched in trees, a fox sneaking through the woods or a grouse or pheasant about to take flight.
I’d see nothing until he pointed them out. Often by the time I finally spotted them I’d catch only a glimpse before they disappeared into foliage.
On the way to and from the lakes, he’d spot every animal emerging from the woods or foraging around the roadside. He’d see a potential accident before it even began to happen. He’d notice unusual airplanes in the sky, 1950-whatever Doozemobiles that he used to work on when he was a teen and on and on.
I asked him how he could see all this stuff when I never noticed anything. “Because I look, and you just see” my dad said. I never discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective until after my father’s death, but when I did, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity of what my dad had said and what Holmes told Watson.
“You see, but you do not observe”
Since then, I’ve worked hard on my powers of observation and I’ve actually gotten better. I often notice many things others do not. The big difference between my father and I is that he did it all the time, but for me, I have to make a conscious effort to focus — except for driving, where I’ve developed my father’s ability to spot wildlife. I’ve missed many a deer because I’d noticed them emerging from the woods while still far down the road.
Observing, rather than seeing, helped me so much when I was first hired by the Canton newspaper to run their Massillon bureau. I knew little about the city but was expected to provide Sunday feature stories on a regular basis. Ideas came easily. I just drove around town, took note of anything unusual, then asked colleagues what they knew about each of them. Very little, it turned out. People don’t notice things in their own backyard.
And so I wrote about the magnificent murals in downtown Massillon and how they’d come to be; the Ohio Society of Military History Museum, the exhibits on display at the city’s own museum, the unique architecture and sprawling mansions of the city’s founders, an alley with its walls adorned with plaques honoring Massillon’s most famous citizens, historical markers, an underground railroad site and on and on.
Over and over I heard from readers who’d lived in the city their entire life, “I never really noticed that was there until I read your story”
We are almost all Dr. Watsons when it comes to the events of our world, even locally. We see what is going on, but we don’t really take notice until it impacts us or someone else points it out for us.
The corruption so prevalent in Sandusky County and on Put-in-Bay didn’t happen overnight. People would see or hear of it, but unless it affected them directly, they paid little attention. And just like mold in a damp, neglected basement corner, the corruption has spread unabated.
Only now, when incident after incident is being reported and the usual attempts to hush them up are no longer working, are people starting to wake up to the extent of the problem. Everyone saw the corruption, knew it existed, but never observed its true impact on their communities. Only now that the corrupt system and officials are being publicly called out are people saying, “This has been going on for too long and we’re sick of it”
Few news organizations have the resources, integrity and the guts to stand up — and refuse to back down — to those in power, and the ones that do are dwindling in number. We can’t always count on others to point out to us what we should be observing for ourselves.
We need to remain vigilant, to refuse to close our eyes or look away when we become aware of something distasteful, but instead see it for what it really is, and act appropriately.
We need not just to see, but to observe.